California's U.S. Senate candidates tackle terrorism, immigration at first debate

Clockwise from top left: California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro, businessman Ron Unz and former state Republican Party Chairman George “Duf” Sundheim.
(Los Angeles Times, Associated Press,

Phil Willon Contact Reporter

The top five candidates seeking to replace California's retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer are meeting in their first debate Monday night, a forum that began with talk of breaking gridlock and helping boost the state's economy and shifted quickly to terrorism.

The two Democrats on stage are state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana, who are first and second, respectively, in all recent polls. The three Republicans are Tom Del Beccaro and George “Duf” Sundheim – two former chairmen of the California Republican Party – and Silicon Valley software developer Ron Unz.

Sanchez went right to her decades of experience serving in Washington when asked about President Obama's approach to fighting terrorism, and mentioned her vote against the war in Iraq.

"I will use everything before we have to go to war with anybody," she said.

But Sundheim went after Sanchez for that experience, citing some figures from a Los Angeles Times story about the congresswoman's sagging attendance record at Homeland Security hearings.

She defended herself by saying the committee meets at the same time
as the Armed Services committee, where she has taken on more duties while the ranking member faces health challenges.

California Senate debate: Sanchez under scrutiny as five candidates sparred in Stockton

As the conversation shifted to immigration, Del Beccaro said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino last year make the issues connected. He called for reform of the nation's visa program.

It is the first debate and comes about six weeks from the June 7 primary.

At the University of the Pacific in Stockton, the candidates lined the stage, standing on podiums, inside an auditorium packed with college students, voters and party loyalists.

The high stakes in the event, one of the few that will happened before the June 7 primary, were apparent. Sundheim flashed a nervous smile as he stood outside the hall hours before.

"The adrenaline is really pumping,” he said.

The debate is one of only two scheduled before the primary. The final debate will be held on May 10 at San Diego State University, with the same five candidates invited.

Harris is the solid front-runner, but Sanchez is in second place and far ahead of the Republican pack, according to the most recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

With most voters entranced by the blustery, political theatrics of the presidential race, the Senate campaign has toddled along unnoticed in California.

The USC/Times poll in late March found 32% of registered voters in California were undecided on which candidate they will vote for in the primary.

Among Republicans and independent voters -- those registered as "no party preference" -- roughly 40% were undecided.

Most of the Senate candidates have been campaigning for months up and down the state, but the radio and television ads that usually flood the airwaves in major statewide political races have not yet materialized.

In reality, only Harris and Sanchez have enough money to even consider a media campaign which, in California, can cost millions of dollars.

Sundheim, Del Becarro and Unz all have less than $100,000 in their campaign accounts.

Harris had nearly $5 million and Sanchez had $2.3 million in the bank as of March 31.

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